Ruby was in her usual spot. Sitting cross-legged, right under the stern “No Busking” sign that was screwed into the old brickwork.
“Busking” being the British term for street-performance; juggling, fire-breathing, magic tricks, whatever.
Ruby was a musician though. A pretty good one, so she’d been told. Just the simple, classic, acoustic guitar-sweet-folksy-singing combo. She wasn’t out to change the world, she wasn’t out to become famous or make tonnes of money. She just enjoyed it, and she thought that was as good a reason as any.
It was a pretty simple gig, just sit down, preferably in a place with a lot of passing foot-traffic and good acoustics, then play through a few songs over and over for an hour or two. This tunnel near the river was perfect and by now it felt like home to her, way more than any actual home she’d had.
She was convinced that a fair few passers-by believed this was actually her home and that she was homeless. Not that this stereotype bothered her, but she could usually tell what people were thinking as they passed.
Some would hurry to find a few coins in their purse, wallet or pockets, in a charitable and rather patronising way. To Ruby this displayed ignorance more than anything, but of course she accepted the coins all the same, she felt kind of sorry for them.
Some people, however, would practically scorn and tut as they walked passed, as if to say get a proper job. This displayed a totally different kind of ignorance, but one for which she was not sympathetic.
Sometimes people would deliberately avoid eye-contact, or busy themselves on their phones, as if Ruby would be angry or heartbroken by their choice not to throw a few coins in the hat. She always found this one the weirdest. She was doing a job as far as she was concerned. She wasn’t begging, but at the same time she hadn’t been asked to perform so why would she be offended if you didn’t pay her?
People were passing, left and right as usual. It was a Thursday evening in Springtime; not quite warm enough for the crazy summer crowds but enough to make the session financially worthwhile.
Out of the corner of her eye she became aware of a shape, a figure, not moving with the crowd one way or the other.
She looked up and saw a middle-aged woman and a young girl watching her.
This happened now and again. It was usually quite nice to have someone actually pay attention to more than a few lines of her songs, it felt more like a genuine performance. Often it happened with children and parents, which was always very cute. Usually the little audience would shuffle off at the end of the song and the kid would put in a generous tip.
Not this time.
Ruby finished the song and they stayed standing, watching. This was a less frequent occurrence but it did still happen from time to time. People decided they wanted their moneys worth, whatever that was, or they genuinely were enthralled with the music. Sometimes it could be annoying actually, as it made her feel a bit too self-conscious and then liable to make mistakes. There had also been times when Ruby had been made uncomfortable by people standing and watching, because she’d suspected them to be muggers or worse. In this instance she usually just feigned a little break from the performance and the characters in question would applaud, maybe pay up and finally move along.
It felt kind of different this time though. The mother and daughter were stood there, waiting and watching but not applauding or really reacting at all. Weirdest of all they were still smiling.
Ruby shook it off and started the next song. Feeling as though she had to put more into the performance. She really went for it on the vocals, closing her eyes and delivering more than the usual amount of emotion needed.
When she opened her eyes there were more people stood watching. Three more separate people had stopped in the foot-tunnel to watch her. It startled her slightly but again this was a phenomenon she’d experienced before. Sometimes when one person stops to watch, it encourages others and the situation kind of snowballs.
There were still people walking past and not stopping but it felt like there were less passers-by now. Ruby continued to play.
Another song and again no applause or tip from the bystanders. She definitely hadn’t played to an audience like this before. By now there were about seven or eight people stood around watching and it was starting to freak her out. By the time the assembled crowd had reached the region of about fifteen people she decided enough was enough and she should finish for the night.
She ended the song, a little hastier than usual, mumbled a “thank you, goodnight” and began to pack up.
Leaning down to pick up the soft guitar bag she suddenly heard footsteps rapidly shuffle towards her. She immediately looked up to see the middle-aged woman and daughter looming over her, too close for comfort.
“Please…” Said the lady, through an almost pained smile “keep playing for us. My daughter loves this music. Please won’t you play some more?”
Ruby didn’t know what to say. She felt sorry for the woman somehow. There was a look of desperation on her face.
“I…I’m sorry I have to be going really…” Ruby fumbled.
The young girl looked disappointed, like someone let down yet again by a loved one who had done it many times before. A man appeared beside Ruby with the same sad-but-smiling expression.
“Please, we love the music. We always listen.”
This last sentence confused and scared Ruby. She performed in this tunnel practically every week but she’d never seen these people before. Did they pass by every day and just coincidentally decide to stop and listen to a full set of songs on the same night? Had they prearranged to get together as her audience? She didn’t like the thought of either of these possibilities. She felt almost like her privacy had been invaded. Busking gave her anonymity despite being out in public. This was all very weird.
“I suppose I could do one more perhaps…?” She offered, supposing she could get the hell out of there after one last number. The expressions on the audience’s faces seemed to relax at this and the members of the gathered crowd who had come forward stayed where they were, expectantly.
Ruby nervously started another song, a particularly shrill and melodic one, a song which she only occasionally played as it was pretty old and the average tourist didn’t really know it. The crowd seemed to move inwards, making her feel crowded and yet more uncomfortable. She couldn’t really see the rest of the tunnel anymore but it seemed as though there were no more people walking through it.
She played through the song, attempting to avoid eye-contact with anyone, instead she looked down at their feet and clothes and for the first time she noticed their clothes looked very old. Not shabby and worn-out but old-fashioned. Out of date. Not that she was a fashion historian but she guessed them at around fifty or sixty years old? Like something her grandmother would have been wearing in old black and white photos of her childhood.
She gazed up and saw the people were blissfully staring into each other’s eyes, or swaying slightly to the song, some with their eyes closed, some hugging each other. A melancholy satisfaction washed over Ruby. She drew the song to a close tenderly and the middle-aged woman smiled. The young girl let out a small sigh and said; “Thank you dear. That was beautiful.”
A well-dressed couple walked along the riverside. They’d been out somewhere and, feeling a little tipsy, had fancied a stroll before finding a taxi home. They heard music as they approached the foot-tunnel.
“Can you hear that?” said the woman, smiling.
“Yeah, there’s a few buskers along here usually.” The man replied. After a pause he said “You know about thirty people died in this tunnel during the war. They were sheltering here during an air-raid.”
They entered the tunnel and saw a young lady sitting on her own, playing a tune on a guitar, eyes closed and blissfully unaware of the emptiness around her.
“My grandfather’s whole family got killed here” the man continued, sneering down at the busker as they walked past “when I think about how hard those people had it back then, it makes me sick to see people like her…”